The Paradigmatic Bishops of History- Apostolic Succession

'Whoa... sorry, I thought the sign said, 'Karate Night'.'

C. Apostolic Succession

This section is vitally important because it is a crucial step in undermining CtC’s claim that Apostolic Succession provides Catholics with a principled means that Scripture does not. For the sake of space, I won’t reiterate my argument and citation of the CtC argument here, but one quote from Bryan (in my article) explains how CtC perceives the organization of the Church,

The Church Christ founded is visible because, as His Mystical Body, it necessarily has an essentially united visible hierarchy; this is the hierarchy of bishops and priests united under the episcopal successor of St. Peter, the visible head appointed by Christ.

Such a statement provides the context for my understanding of CtC’s concept of Apostolic Succession, and I believe that my argument has falsified this conception. Benedict echoes this sentiment,

Likewise, the unity of the episcopate, of which “the Roman Pontiff, as the Successor of Peter, is the perpetual and visible source and foundation”, continues down the centuries through the apostolic succession and is the foundation of the identity of the Church in every age with the Church built by Christ on Peter and on the other Apostles.[1]

Benedict, echoing Lumen Gentium argues that the Pope is the visible source of the unity of the episcopate. Lumen Gentium says much the same thing,

But the college or body of bishops has no authority unless it is understood together with the Roman Pontiff, the successor of Peter as its head. The pope’s power of primacy over all, both pastors and faithful, remains whole and intact. In virtue of his office, that is as Vicar of Christ and pastor of the whole Church, the Roman Pontiff has full, supreme and universal power over the Church. And he is always free to exercise this power. The order of bishops, which succeeds to the college of apostles and gives this apostolic body continued existence, is also the subject of supreme and full power over the universal Church, provided we understand this body together with its head the Roman Pontiff and never without this head.[2]

The reason I highlight these things is to point out an important principle for Roman Catholics: Succession of a Petrine office is of the essence of Apostolic Succession to the Roman Catholic Church. Without this Petrine succession, the Church functions without the head of the body. Rome’s identity is inextricably linked to an historical Petrine successor (CCC 880-887). Without this connection, Rome may well have men in its churches that can trace their ordination back to the Apostles, but this would be insufficient to constitute the Church. As Ott explains, “…the apostolic Church and the unfalsified teaching are where Peter or his successor is” (pg. 308).

There is a lingering problem of definitions regarding Apostolic Succession as well. In my original article I joined them because the consistent presentation of Apostolic Succession is that the monarchical episcopate was the mechanism for the Apostles to transfer their “office” to those who succeeded them. BOH seems to argue similarly, but exerts much effort in arguing that even if there were not a single bishop in Rome, that still would not undermine Catholic dogma. Yet, the only way they could argue that a plurality of leaders without the monarchical episcopate is compatible with Roman teaching is if they likewise rejected the reliability of Irenaeus and Tertullian on the existence of the monarchical episcopate. I think this is a reasonable position, but then it severely blunts BOH’s argument. If they accept Irenaeus’s testimony, then they believe the monarchical episcopacy originated with Linus when it was committed to him by Paul and Peter. The monarchical episcopate could possibly be distinct from Apostolic Succession in Rome, but that’s not BOH’s argument nor is it the argument of later Fathers. BOH therefore faces a dilemma: keep the union of the monarchical episcopate and “apostolic succession” or divide them, acknowledging Irenaeus is unreliable regarding ecclesial structure. There is no middle ground.[3]

Yet, even the notion of Apostolic Succession itself needs to be disambiguated because simply because Irenaeus uses the word “Apostolic succession” does not mean that he means the same thing as Rome does. I assumed, as BOH implies, succession and the monarchical episcopate are distinct but inseparably tethered concepts. Yet, as a closer examination will make clear, Irenaeus is not a knock-down case for Rome’s version of sacramental apostolic succession.

  1. Irenaeus

It is important to understand the context of Irenaeus’s writing and his beliefs regarding Apostolic Succession. Irenaeus primary focus in Against Heresies is to refute the supposed apostolic tradition maintained by various gnostic groups. The first two books are largely concerned with addressing the cosmology of Gnosticism. Irenaeus rightly demonstrates the Gnostics (Valentinus is often in his sights) allow their philosophical speculation to wildly contort and misinterpret Scripture. Irenaeus often responds that the Apostles taught and preached publicly, and none of the churches affirm the dualism and divine emanation of the Gnostics. Instead, Irenaeus explains the faith expressed by the apostolic churches in Book I.X.1-3. This is one of the summaries Irenaeus gives of the Apostolic faith:

The Church, though dispersed through our the whole world, even to the ends of the earth, has received from the apostles and their disciples this faith: [She believes] in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven, and earth, and the sea, and all things that are in them; and in one Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who became incarnate for our salvation; and in the Holy Spirit, who proclaimed through the prophets the dispensations of God, and the advents, and the birth from a virgin, and the passion, and the resurrection from the dead, and the ascension into heaven in the flesh of the beloved Christ Jesus, our Lord, and His [future] manifestation from heaven in the glory of the Father to gather all things in one, and to raise up anew all flesh of the whole human race, in order that to Christ Jesus, our Lord, and God, and Saviour, and King, according to the will of the invisible Father, every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth, and that every tongue should confess to Him, and that He should execute just judgment towards all; that He may send spiritual wickednesses, and the angels who transgressed and became apostates, together with the ungodly, and unrighteous, and wicked, and profane among men, into everlasting fire; but may, in the exercise of His grace, confer immortality on the righteous, and holy, and those who have kept His commandments, and have persevered in His love, some from the beginning [of their Christian course], and others from [the date of] their repentance, and may surround them with everlasting glory.

Irenaeus goes on to explain this faith is quite distinct from one that claims there is a Pleroma that contains thirty emanations and innumerable aeons. The Apostolic teaching proclaims one God, one Lord and Savior, and one Holy Spirit speaking through the prophets. Irenaeus emphasizes this throughout his treatise. He even states in I.XXII.1,

The rule of truth, which we hold, is that there one God Almighty, who made all things by His Word, and fashioned and formed, out of that which had no existence, all things which exist.

The rule of “truth” in the churches is: one God and one Lord & Savior

After describing and providing a largely philosophical and theological critique of Gnosticism in Books 1&2, Irenaeus proceeds by evaluating the plausibility that the Gnostics are the legitimate heirs of apostolic preaching.  In looking at the Gospels their apostolic authors,

have declared to us that there is one God, Creator of heaven and earth, announced by the law and the prophets; and one Christ the Son of God (3.1.2).

Yet, there some of the Gnostics claimed the Scriptures were insufficient because the truth was delivered “viva voce,” or in the living voice. Irenaeus points out, however, that each Gnostic sect differs from one another regarding this living voice in distinction from both the Scriptures and the testimony of the universal church. Yet, when the succession of presbyters who preach the “rule of truth” is expounded, they claim a greater wisdom than they and even the Apostles themselves (who were teaching without “fullness of knowledge” in Scripture; III.II.2). These Gnostic teachers are slippery and seek to evade the truth, but Irenaeus illustrates his point by showing the succession of teaching exists throughout the world where none of the apostolic successors has ever heard of anything other than One God and one Lord.

Irenaeus reasons, if the Apostles had in fact taught something in secret and not publicly, that they would have at least told the men they were entrusting the church to. Certainly these men would have known something of these secret doctrines. The Apostles would have surely known if these men did not know true doctrine the church would fall into “calamity” and therefore it is safe to assume they would have made sure to entrust the important aspects of the faith to them, otherwise the teaching of the Lord would be forever lost.

While Irenaeus does not have space to draw up a list of the succession in each church, he focuses upon the church founded by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul. Peter and Paul give the episcopate to Linus. After Linus Anacletus was installed (whether the installation comes at the hands of Linus or not is not explicitly stated, however, , and then third, was Clement. Irenaeus goes on to emphasize the writing we possess from Clement, where he “proclaims the one God” Maker of all and God of the OT saints. After listing the rest of the successors to the contemporary time Irenaeus claims this chain of belief confirms the preaching of truth

has come down to us. And this is most abundant proof that there is one and the same vivifying faith, which has been preserved in the Church from the apostles until now, and handed down in truth.”

Moreover, Irenaeus had even seen Polycarp as a young man (perhaps child), who also condemned Gnostics as do the churches in Philippi, and Ephesus (where Paul and John had been). This leads Irenaeus to conclude that these proofs demonstrate the Gnostics do not have the Apostolic teaching. They have neither the Scriptures nor the tradition of the church. The Gnostics have no connection to Apostolic teaching, but the succession of presbyters and bishops preserves the true Apostolic preaching (One Creator of all things, One Lord and Savior) as it exists in Scripture.

Book 4 is then primarily concerned with a biblical theological defense of the one God, One Lord and Savior rule of truth. Irenaeus notes things like Jesus claiming one Father and that Moses and Abraham testify to Christ in the OT. In IV.XXV, Irenaeus emphasizes that Christ’s coming fulfilled the prophecies in the OT Scripture and that Abraham prefigures both the Mosaic and New Covenants. Irenaeus then opens Chapter 26.1 by saying,

If any one, therefore, reads the Scriptures with attention, he will find in them an account of Christ, and a foreshadowing of the new calling.

He then clarifies that the mysteries of this fulfillment were not realized before the Cross, but after,

For every prophecy, before its fulfilment, is to men [full of] enigmas and ambiguities. But when the time has arrived, and the prediction has come to pass, then the prophecies have a clear and certain exposition.

Yet, Irenaeus admits that the Jews do not perceive Christ in the OT, (even if they do not see the plain fulfillment). But then he explains something important about understanding the fulfillment of Scripture. It is Jesus, after his resurrection, that explained the interpretation of prophecies.

For thus it was that the Lord discoursed with the disciples after His resurrection from the dead, proving to them from the Scriptures themselves that Christ must suffer, and enter into His glory, and that remission of sins should be preached in His name throughout all the world. And the disciple will be perfected, and [rendered] like the householder, who brings forth from his treasure things new and old.

In other words, who would know the teaching of Jesus regarding how to interpret the OT other than those whom he taught? Consequently,

Wherefore it is incumbent to obey the presbyters who are in the Church—those who, as I have shown, possess the succession from the apostles; those who, together with the succession of the episcopate, have received the certain gift of truth, according to the good pleasure of the Father.

Thus, it is the presbyters and bishops who received the succession from the Apostles the One God/One Lord and Savior paradigm the Gnostics challenge. Thus, Irenaeus councils against gathering with those who have not descended from apostolic churches, teaching strange doctrines. Yet, he also recognizes that it is possible for presbyters who do not fear God and crave “the chief seat” and work evil in secret (4.26.3). These, who are believed to be presbyters by many, along with the Gnostics, ought to raise caution. Irenaeus states (4.25.4),

From all such persons, therefore, it behooves us to keep aloof, but to adhere to those who, as I have already observed, do hold the doctrine of the apostles, and who, together with the order of presbyters (presbyterii ordine), display sound speech and blameless conduct for the confirmation and correction of others.

Instead, the church ought to be nourished by appropriate presbyters (4.25.5),

Where, therefore, the gifts of the Lord have been placed, there it behooves us to learn the truth, [namely,] from those who possess that succession of the Church which is from the apostles, and among whom exists that which is sound and blameless in conduct, as well as that which is unadulterated and incorrupt in speech. For these also preserve this faith of ours in one God who created all things; and they increase that love [which we have] for the Son of God, who accomplished such marvellous dispensations for our sake: and they expound the Scriptures to us without danger, neither blaspheming God, nor dishonouring the patriarchs, nor despising the prophets.

After continuing to affirm the singular story of redemption running through OT and NT in appeals to Scripture and reason, Irenaeus confirms that not only does the NT teach the unity of the testaments, but this is also affirmed by an unnamed presbyter and disciple of the Apostles who taught (4.32.1),

For [he maintained] that there was no other God besides Him who made and fashioned us, and that the discourse of those men has no foundation who affirm that this world of ours was made either by angels, or by any other power whatsoever, or by another God.

Irenaeus then sandwiches a biblical argument between another appeal to read Scripture in continuity with the presbyters in the Church in order to buttress his point (4.32.1).

In the next chapter, (4.33) he compares explains who the spiritual man is. He judges Marcion (4.33.2), Valentinus (4.33.3), Ebionites (4.33.4), Docetists (4.33.5), False prophets (44.33.6), those who give rise to schism (4.33.7)). He also has true knowledge which consists in,

the doctrine of the apostles, and the ancient constitution of the Church throughout all the world, and the distinctive manifestation of the body of Christ according to the successions of the bishops, by which they have handed down that Church which exists in every place, and has come even unto us, being guarded and preserved without any forging of Scriptures, by a very complete system of doctrine, and neither receiving addition nor [suffering] curtailment [in the truths which she believes]; and [it consists in] reading [the word of God] without falsification, and a lawful and diligent exposition in harmony with the Scriptures, both without danger and without blasphemy;

This true knowledge is also strengthened by the persecution of true Christians (4.33.9-13) and the true interpretation of the prophetic Scripture (4.33.14-15). Book V will go on to adduce more arguments against Gnosticism, but many of them are focused upon the gnostic debasement of matter. Irenaeus takes particular pains to emphasize the reality of a bodily resurrection. Irenaeus contests with them with Scripture and reasons to refute their claims.

With this brief analysis of Against Heresies, we can know draw some conclusions and evaluate arguments from BOH. The first important takeaway is that for Irenaeus the succession is not confined to bishops—he extends apostolic succession to presbyters as well.  Scholars generally recognize Irenaeus uses the terms “bishop” and “presbyter” interchangeably (if true, this decisively rules out a translation of “priest’), though there does appear to be some sort of distinction in 4.26.1. Regardless, while Irenaeus *does* point out an episcopal succession, there is no evidence that Irenaeus believed succession was the bishops prerogative alone or that monarchical bishop possessed an Apostolic charism, succeeding the Apostolic office. The presbyters and the bishops, whatever distinction resides between them, both possess Apostolic Succession.

Second, Irenaeus is making a point about the public proclamation of the Gospel, particularly as it related to Gnostic claims to apostolicity. Irenaeus never makes a sacramental argument (the Gnostic do not possess the proper consecrated successor), he makes an historical argument about the public transmission of the Gospel. The Gnostics cannot trace their teaching to any public figure who was involved in the public proclamation of the Gospel. Moreover, they are contradicted by the public teaching of the leaders of the faith throughout the world (Rome, Ephesus, Smyrna). The only apostolic connection Irenaeus is willing to grant Gnostics is association with Simon Magus—the sorcerer who attempted to use the Gospel for his own selfish advantage—whom the Apostles denounced. Irenaeus is almost certainly incorrect about this historical detail, but his larger point is historically persuasive, Gnosticism is wholly distinct from the Apostolic message. Similarly, Irenaeus is not entirely accurate regarding the ancient nature of the episcopate, however, he accurately points to public presbyter-bishops who have contiguously taught the same catholic faith as witnessed in Scripture and the Apostolically founded churches.

Third, at no point does Irenaeus assume the bishops are endowed with infallibility, whether corporately or in communion with the bishop of Rome. He even assumes there are presbyters who ought not be trusted because they do not reverence the Apostolic faith and are self-interested. The bishops and presbyters in succession from the Apostles have received a fixed deposit, which Irenaeus defines in numerous ways, but all of which effectively communicate the Apostles Creed. This is the faith Irenaeus believes has been received and continues to testifies. As the Apostles received their message from Christ, so the Apostles delivered the same message to their disciples who then delivered it to their disciples. This faith has remained unified in its teaching, one God and One Lord and Savior and this is historically demonstrable in history; not in sacramental succession, but in being publicly entrusted with the Apostolic Teaching.

Fourth, there is nothing uniquely Petrine about the episcopal line in Rome. Paul and Peter are represented as jointly bestowing the office upon Linus. It is only 70-80 years later that the claim of Petrine authority would be made.

BOH concludes regarding Irenaeus and Tertullian,

According to St. Irenaeus and Tertullian, the Apostles did not merely preach truths of the divine revelation of Christ to the first Christians, and then go to their martyrdom. That would have left the Church susceptible to the Gnostic challenge, with many clamoring voices claiming to speak for the Apostles, and claiming to have texts written by the Apostles. It would have left the sheep without divinely-designated shepherds, entirely at a loss regarding what is the truth concerning Christ and His Gospel. Rather, according to St. Irenaeus and Tertullian, by publicly appointed successors, and giving to them the authority to appoint further successors in perpetuam, the Apostles cut off the Gnostic challenge at the knees, by, in a sense, perpetuating themselves, and so ensuring that no Gnostic challenger could ever have an equal claim to speak for the Apostles. In this way, it is not just an “historical argument.” It is an argument that reaches back into history in order to show why the normative way of determining the truth concerning the apostolic deposit is to unroll the lines of bishops, and see whose go back to the Apostles. Only those bishops have the divine authority from the Apostles to say what does or does not belong to the deposit of faith received from the Apostles.

In summarizing Irenaeus, BOH goes well beyond what Irenaeus claims for Apostolic succession. Irenaeus does not claim the Gnostics lack a charism of apostolic succession, he rather points out their doctrines and origin do not subside with the Apostles. According to Irenaeus, the Apostles instructed their “successors” (bishops and presbyters) in the faith and entrusted them with the preaching and teaching of the Gospel. The fact the Gnostics cannot point to one of these men whom the apostles entrusted the care of the church shows the unapostolic origin of their claims. It is true that Irenaeus and Tertullian identify the episcopate as a unique mechanism for the passing down the apostolic succession, but even if this point is not historically accurate, their argument retains its strength. While Linus would not have recognized himself as a monarchical bishop, he very probably taught the One God/One Lord and Savior that Irenaeus defends.

BOH goes on to claim,

By having the succession from the Apostles, they possessed what St. Irenaeus calls “the certain gift of truth.” The priests and bishops are promised (by Christ) the gift of preserving the truth that was entrusted to them by Christ through the Apostles, upon condition of remaining in communion with the successor of the one to whom Christ entrusted the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven.

This statement by Irenaeus does not concern a gift of preserving the truth entrusted to the bishops upon remaining in communion with “Peter.” Instead, Irenaeus is saying that these men, have received the certain gift of truth as taught from Jesus to the Apostles and from the Apostles to their “successors.” A contextual reading of this portion of Against Heresies (as done above) demonstrates my option is preferable. When one begins examining the sources, BOH’s proposals are tendentious over-extension of the evidence. Upon examination, BOH’s reading of these texts is an imposition of later theological categories into the historical circumstances of the late second century. Irenaeus does not support the manner of Apostolic Succession BOH claims.

  1. Tertullian.

Tertullian, also speaks about the role of the monarchical episcopate in apostolic succession. His Prescription Against Heresies is often adduced to demonstrate his affinity for the necessity of the episcopate. In Chapters 1 & 2 he notes the heresies must exist and that the weak are seduced by them. In Chapter 3, he explains that human frailty extends to everyone except Christ. He then explains,

But what if a bishop, if a deacon, if a widow, if a virgin, if a doctor, if even a martyr, have fallen from the rule (of faith), will heresies on that account appear to possess the truth? Do we prove the faith by the persons, or the persons by the faith…Did not certain of the disciples turn back from the Lord Himself, when they were offended? Yet the rest did not therefore think that they must turn away from following Him, but because they knew that He was the Word of Life, and had come from God, they continued in His company to the very last, after He had gently inquired of them whether they also would go away. It is a comparatively small thing, that certain men, like Phygellus, and Hermogenes, and Philetus, and Hymenæus, deserted His apostle: the betrayer of Christ was himself one of the apostles.

In other words, Tertullian acknowledges the possibility for a bishop to fall from the faith. As a matter of fact, Apostles often fail, but their personal failures do not negate the truth of the Gospel. In subsequent sections Tertullian goes on to explain the speculations of Gnostics are not consistent with finding the true faith. After believing the truth, there is not a deeper knowledge to pursue, the fullness of truth is found in Christ.

In Chapter 12, Tertullian explains that truth should be sought among “our own” by appealing to the rule of faith. In Chapter 13, Tertullian explains what this rule of faith is,

there is one only God, and that He is none other than the Creator of the world, who produced all things out of nothing through His own Word, first of all sent forth; that this Word is called His Son, and, under the name of God, was seen in diverse manners by the patriarchs, heard at all times in the prophets, at last brought down by the Spirit and Power of the Father into the Virgin Mary, was made flesh in her womb, and, being born of her, went forth as Jesus Christ; thenceforth He preached the new law and the new promise of the kingdom of heaven, worked miracles; having been crucified, He rose again the third day; (then) having ascended into the heavens, He sat at the right hand of the Father; sent instead of Himself the Power of the Holy Ghost to lead such as believe; will come with glory to take the saints to the enjoyment of everlasting life and of the heavenly promises, and to condemn the wicked to everlasting fire, after the resurrection of both these classes shall have happened, together with the restoration of their flesh. This rule, as it will be proved, was taught by Christ, and raises among ourselves no other questions than those which heresies introduce, and which make men heretics.

This is the rule of faith that has been passed down from Christ to the Apostles and the Apostles to churches. Chapters 14-19 explain Gnostics twist the Scriptures and have no right to them because (19),

For wherever it shall be manifest that the true Christian rule and faith shall be, there will likewise be the true Scriptures and expositions thereof, and all the Christian traditions.

In this Chapter 19 of the Prescriptions the rule refers to the proclamation of the Apostolic preaching. In Chapter 21, however, Tertullian redefines this rule to refer to communion with Apostolic churches (at this point, not explicitly bishops). The Lord taught the Apostles and the Apostles established churches at Jesus’ command. These Apostles faithfully transmitted the Gospel in their fullness to the churches (Ch. 22-26). Thus, if the Apostles publicly and thoroughly proclaimed the Gospel, it is inconceivable that the churches would immediately lose their teaching. It is true that the Galatians and the Corinthians did corrupt the faith early, however, they were corrected by the Apostles (Ch. 27). Tertullian grants for the sake of argument that the Apostles teaching was corrupted (also ignoring the promise of Christ to protect the Church), but then how can it explain the universal teaching of the Church (Ch. 28)?  Continuing the thought experiment that the orthodox churches corrupted the Gospel, Tertullian then facetiously agrees that truth had to wait for Marcion and Valentinus in the second century to be rescued from corruption. Yet, how then can error precede corruption (29; 31)? It cannot be so because error always perverts the original. This is why Paul instructs people not to believe another Gospel other than the one he taught in the churches—even if an angel of heaven presented it. Marcion and Valentinus, however, are not angels but morally corrupt men from recent times (Ch. 30).

In Chapter 32, Tertullian taunts the Gnostics to make a claim to apostolic teaching. Gnostics cannot show their churches were apostolically assigned, however, as churches like Rome can. Rome has the provenance of three apostles, Peter, Paul, & John.

Let them produce the original records of their churches; let them unfold the roll of their bishops, running down in due succession from the beginning in such a manner that [that first bishop of theirs ] bishop shall be able to show for his ordainer and predecessor some one of the apostles or of apostolic men,— a man, moreover, who continued steadfast with the apostles. For this is the manner in which the apostolic churches transmit their registers: as the church of Smyrna, which records that Polycarp was placed therein by John; as also the church of Rome, which makes Clement to have been ordained in like manner by Peter. In exactly the same way the other churches likewise exhibit (their several worthies), whom, as having been appointed to their episcopal places by apostles, they regard as transmitters of the apostolic seed. Let the heretics contrive something of the same kind.

None of the Gnostics can claim any connection to the apostles or “apostolic men.” Some churches without having a formal ecclesial connection to the Apostles, however, do possess apostolicity via their agreement in teaching.  Moreover, even if churches do not have connection to these apostolic men, they at least share the same faith and retain their apostolicity in this way, as he says,

To this test, therefore will they be submitted for proof by those churches, who, although they derive not their founder from apostles or apostolic men (as being of much later date, for they are in fact being founded daily), yet, since they agree in the same faith, they are accounted as not less apostolic because they are akin in doctrine.

The Gnostics, however, are condemned by Scripture in multiple places. Paul, for example, contends against those who deny the resurrection (Ch. 33). There is nothing in the Scriptures about the existence of two competing gods (Ch. 34). If the Gnostics want to claim apostolicity, they should be able to prove some sort of connection to the apostles, but they cannot do it. Conversely, the orthodox can trace their doctrine throughout the churches and in Scripture (Ch. 35).

This apostolic connection is widespread. Apostolic churches exist in Corinth, Philippi, Thessalonica, Ephesus, Rome—all of these locations retain the authentic apostolic writings and read them. All of these churches with the “very thrones of the Apostles” all confess the same faith (Ch. 36),

One Lord God does she acknowledge, the Creator of the universe, and Christ Jesus (born) of the Virgin Mary, the Son of God the Creator; and the Resurrection of the flesh; the law and the prophets she unites in one volume with the writings of evangelists and apostles, from which she drinks in her faith. This she seals with the water (of baptism), arrays with the Holy Ghost, feeds with the Eucharist, cheers with martyrdom, and against such a discipline thus (maintained) she admits no gainsayer.

It is not entirely clear what Tertullian means by the “thrones of the Apostles,” but he is undoubtedly referring to their apostolic authority residing in those cities that proclaims the apostolic faith.

Rejection of this apostolic faith (see definition above) disqualifies Marcion and Valentnius from possessing the Scriptures (Ch. 37). They belong to the church, not to men who reject the unanimous teaching of the apostolic churches and Scripture. Thus, the Gnostics continually corrupt Scripture and alter it, but the orthodox churches have received and retained the Scriptures in their entirety. Marcion perverts the text of Scripture “by hand” (removing Scripture) whereas Valentinus corrupts Scripture “by his exposition” (Ch. 38). This same pattern of textual corruption and misappropriation is found in Hosidius’s stories. The Gnostics do to Scripture what Hosidius does to Homer (Ch. 39).   In his final considerations, Tertullian concludes heretics are morally corrupt (Ch. 40-44) and are not concerned with the body of Christ.

S.L. Greenslade summarizes Irenaeus’s and Tertullian’s doctrine of Apostolic Succession thusly:

Above all, their [Irenaeus and Tertullian] concern is always for the preservation of true doctrine, the faith. They are only secondarily concerned with the means by which the institutional Church is maintained in being, though they are concerned with that, as a means to the main object. Secondly, the apostolic succession in question consists in the line of bishops in each local church, not a chain of consecrator and consecrated, which would give quite a different list. Apostolic succession always means the former in the early Church. Thirdly, there is no particular stress on their being bishops. The argument does not stand or fall by episcopacy, though certainly Tertullian takes it for granted. Irenaeus sometimes calls the successions ‘successions of presbyters.’ The essential point is that there should be an orderly succession of responsible ministers in each local church.

This understanding of the Church of the apostolic succession lent itself to something which was not, it seems, predominantly in the mind of Tertullian, and certainly not of Irenaeus, namely an institutionalism in which the notes of authority, fixity, and good churchmanship are emphasized at the expense of other, and perhaps more important, features of the Christian life..

Tertullian certainly believed it was the manner in which the Apostolic teaching was passed down in particular apostolic churches. However, the emphasis is always upon the apostolic teaching and continuity of this teaching, particularly as it relates to Gnosticism. This is why Tertullian even allows for an exception to tracing ordination to an apostle or an apostolic man—if they agree in doctrine. Bishops themselves may in fact fall into error, but that would not invalidate the apostolic teaching which is clearly taught in Scripture and widely maintained by churches established by the Apostles.

A contextual reading of Tertullian provides a far more nuanced reading than BOH offers. For example, after Tertullian proves the Gnostics do not have Apostolic origin because there founders are in the mid second century, Tertullian then takes the argument a step further, taunting the Gnostics to provide their connection to an apostolic church by way of a succession. BOH mistakenly summarizes Tertullian’s argument,

Tertullian is here saying that the way to distinguish heretics from the orthodox is to get out the records and see whose bishops can trace their succession back to the Apostles.

It is certainly not *the* way to distinguish the orthodox, because Tertullian has provided an extensive argument of which this argument is only a further supplement, and for which he even provides an exception when “non-aposotlic” churches agree with the orthodox churches in doctrine. In other words, this is an important way to distinguish heretics from the orthodox, but it is not the only or even the primary way.

BOH claims, however,

…if Tertullian believed that the Apostolic Churches of his time only happened to contain the Apostles’ doctrine, but were not necessarily the divinely authorized and divinely protected guardians and stewards of the deposit of faith, there would be no reason to point to the Apostolic Churches as the standard by which to locate the Apostles doctrine. Tertullian’s requirement that apostolic doctrine be determined by conformity to the doctrine taught in the Churches founded by the Apostles presupposes not only that the Apostles did not withhold any revealed doctrine from the bishops they ordained, but also that there is a divine promise of preservation of the faith among those having the succession from the Apostles. In other words, we see here implicitly in Tertullian the same notion in St. Irenaeus of a “charism of truth” that accompanies possessing the succession from the Apostles, in full communion with the successor of St. Peter.

This is an unnecessary step beyond what Tertullian actually says. For Tertullian, he is building an historical argument showing the orthodox churches in fact retain the Apostolic teaching.  He never appeals to a charism passed on to each bishop. Instead, he points out to the universal agreement of the churches founded by the Apostles (an important historical point) in addition to the written teaching of the Apostles (also an important historical point). He brilliantly draws the two arguments together by pointing out the churches that received apostolic writings have all retained the apostolic rule of faith. Of course, Tertullian believes the apostolic churches have been authorized to protect and guard the tradition, but he does not assume anything about a ‘charism of truth’ in the succession from the Apostles and he does not know anything of a successor of St. Peter. Such categories are being imposed on the text rather than being derived from it.

BOH goes on to claim,

If it does not come from the Apostles and those ordained by the Apostles, then it is ipso facto not to be received. This applies not only to teaching, but also to teachers and preachers.

This is, once again, an over-extension of Tertullian’s argument. Tertullian says nothing about successors of the Apostles or rejecting teachers “not sent and ordained by the Apostles.” The argument is rather that since the Apostles received their teaching from God, the teaching of the Apostles ought to be believed.  And since the Apostles publicly founded churches, and all those churches agree to the rule of faith, this testifies to the unified apostolic teaching retained in the churches. The universal agreement is “our witness of truth,” instead of ordination in the lines of the Apostles. That is not to say that this process of episcopal consecration is inconsequential to Tertullian, but it is *not* the substance of his argument.

Continuing, BOH claims,

Tertullian here shows that those who are not in communion with the Apostolic Churches have no right to appeal to Scripture to defend their positions, because the Scriptures belong to the bishops to whom the apostolic writings were entrusted by the Apostles. Since the Scriptures belong to the bishops, those not in communion with those bishops in the universal Church have no right to challenge what the bishops say that the Scriptures teach.

Tertullian’s argument is more precise than this. As he concludes his entire historical argument, he claims the apostolic churches, since they universally testify to the rule of faith (which he has just again summarized in Chapter 36), are the true heirs of apostolic teaching. The fact that the Gnostics reject this historical apostolic confession demonstrates they have no claim to handle the Scriptures because “they are not Christians.” The reason they are not Christians is not directly related to their “communion with those bishops,” but first and foremost because they reject the faith received by the apostolic churches.

BOH concludes its section on Irenaeus and Tertullian by summarizing their teaching on apostolic succesion,

It is an argument that reaches back into history in order to show why the normative way of determining the truth concerning the apostolic deposit is to unroll the lines of bishops, and see whose go back to the Apostles. Only those bishops have the divine authority from the Apostles to say what does or does not belong to the deposit of faith received from the Apostles.

As has been shown, this is simply not what Irenaeus or Tertullian actually say. They do assume the mechanism through which the apostolic tradition has been passed down is in the monarchical episcopate, however, as Greenslade notes, the argument is not dependent upon episcopacy or Roman notions of apostolic succession. In addition, while BOH has an entire section on Petrine Succession, none of it provides an argument of substance. Innuendo and vague allusions are used to claim that an author may possibly be referring to a distinctively Petrine succession in Rome.

iii. Brandon’s alleged bind

Rejection of the sacramental notion of Apostolic Succession places me in a bind, according to BOH, because it is inconsistent to hold my position and believe in a visible church. If there is no visible head, then it cannot be a Church, which, as I have argued, is a constituent component of Apostolic Succession for Rome. Of course, if there is no visible head in the Church and yet Jesus founded a church, then this would undercut BOH’s argument. It’s true that this affirmation introduces potential problems about identifying *where* the Church is, but if this is an issue in the institution of the Church it is better to deal with the limitations before us than then to invent solutions we believe to be better—all the while claiming they are divinely instituted.  Yet, even the dilemma that BOH proposes is once more not an accurate representation of my argument,

Brandon’s thesis is that the universal emergence of monarchical bishops in communion with the monarchical bishop of Rome was not a continuation of the apostolic hierarchy, but a corruption of an original parity of mere presbyters.

The language of “mere presbyters” is imprecise since in the Catholic paradigm my proposal is more akin to the church being governed by a plurality of bishops without jurisdictional authority. Moreover, the development of the monarchical episcopate may be judged to be a corruption by some (and it is by some in the PCA), but that is not what I have argued. I argued the monarchical episcopate developed organically from a presbyterial structure in the city of Rome (I even allowed caveats for more monarchical structures in places like Jerusalem). No value judgment is provided about whether or not this was a “corruption,” but it was simply argued as a point of history. BOH has imported theological categories into this historical observation which has distorted their understanding of my argument.

Another point here is that if Jesus did not have successors of the Apostles with the successor of Peter, then the church is visible, but not in the way BOH believes. Since I believe the church founded by Jesus is one governed by elders and deacons, I have no problem saying that the Church in the third and fourth centuries was the Church. In other words, this is only a problem if one assumes BOH’s definition of the Church necessarily existing with a visible head in succession from Peter. BOH may well believe that civil societies ought to be structured a certain way, but if Christ instituted something different, then it means either that BOH is using a faulty philosophical category or this philosophical category is being applied in a faulty manner to the institution established by Jesus.

BOH attempted to argue though, that my approach to the Fathers presented a methodological problem—either rejection of the Patristic witness or grand apostasy. BOH presents one paradigm while my position represents another. I do agree with this general assessment, but my assessment of the situation is much different. BOH represents one way to appropriate historical documents, to interpolate later conditions into earlier writings, or, the historical approach, of attempting to synthesize data and come up with the best possible reconstruction of how things came to be. One paradigm is certainly better than the other.

In addition, BOH’s criticism assumes that the earliest Fathers mean the same thing BOH does when writing about the monarchical episcopate and Apostolic Succession, and also assumes that my argument necessitate these later notions were, “founded upon a single primordial error.” I affirm there were historical inaccuracies that were enshrined, but I have not used such strong rhetoric to express this historical process. It may be apologetically advantageous for BOH to categorize my thesis in this way, but it does not present my argument in strength. This is why BOH’s next charge, that the church could “undergo a radical metamorphosis without any indication of struggle against such novelty seems incredible on its face,” is attacking a straw-man.

[1] http://w2.vatican.va/content/benedict-xvi/en/letters/2007/documents/hf_ben-xvi_let_20070527_china.html

[2]Paragraph 22. http://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_const_19641121_lumen-gentium_en.html

[3] For more information on this and even seeing Bryan and Michael Liccione admitting the non-existence of the papacy would undermine Catholic claims to succession here and here.


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